[Gruesome Exclusive] “Next Exit” to the Afterlife – Tony Timpone Chats With Director Mali Elfman

Mali Elfman’s supernatural road movie Next Exit, opening November 4 from Magnolia Pictures, answers (at least in a fictional context!) one of the proverbial questions: Is there life after death? The movie says yes.

Long-time horror fan Elfman, daughter of acclaimed movie composer Danny Elfman, drew upon her own personal story to inform this directorial debut. Next Exit tracks a mismatched couple (Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli) racing cross-country to take part in a research scientist’s contentious afterlife experiments. It’s a voyage of self-discovery for all involved, with the paranormal taking a (literal) backseat. Next Exit won raves at its 2022 Tribeca Film Festival world premiere. Now the affable filmmaker, who produced Do Not Disturb and Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake, is poised for a major career in the genre. In this exclusive interview, Elfman talks about Next Exit’s inspirations and her own encounters with the spirit world.

Did road trip horror movies like The Hitcher or Near Dark inspire you at all?

It was more of la mixture of loving the ghosts from The Orphanage meets When Harry Met Sally… type of a thing, which is a weird combination. Honestly, one of the reasons why I wanted to do a road trip film is, it allowed me to set up a very simple structure and then allowed me to focus on what I really wanted to do, which was the concepts and the characters and their journey through it. That was one of the big motivations. And also, I love a road trip, and I just feel like there’s something spiritual that happens when you get away from your comfort zone and you’re forced to take in the world around you and the people that you meet. And so, I just wanted to take them both out of their worlds and then put them in another place. And so that was the reason for that.

Could you talk about how your grandmother’s death got you started on this?

Well, to be fair, that was an impetus later on. I started writing this almost 10 years ago. It had to do with going through a lot of emotionally dark places. Later on in my life, after having gone through a couple of losses, that was the impetus for our Dr. Stevenson character and why she would’ve created this entire scientific discovery. The notion [that a person is] there at one moment and then they’re gone, it doesn’t make sense to me. It didn’t make logical sense, and I wanted to change that. And so [the screenplay] came from a place of just wishing it weren’t true. Then I was like, “Well, why can’t it be?” I already had this road trip film, but ghosts and that whole other realm got added into the film at that point. And it was funny because I already had these characters in the structure, but that’s when the story really made sense to me.

You started the script 10 years ago. What makes it timelier today?

I picked it back up at the top of COVID. I was very stressed out then unlike anybody else [laughs]. I saw one thing in the world change and then I saw how, if one thing changes, there’s a huge ripple effect and it affects everybody. It affects politics, it affects religion, it affects beliefs, it affects schools, it affects everyone. And so that was very relevant for me creating this and why I realized that it actually was very truthful. One thing changes in our world and some people believe it, some people don’t, some people question it. That became incredibly relevant and timely for me.

Are you a believer in the afterlife?

I am.

Is there anything specific that made you a believer?

I grew up in a notoriously haunted house in Topanga Canyon. So, there’s definitely that element of it. But unlike what horror films often portray—there’s something scary in the house and everybody’s terrified of it—we had ghost experiences going on and it was more of a nuisance for us. Like the lights flickering and turning on and off and doors opening and closing. It’s more of an annoying thing, so you’re not as scared of it. That’s also the perspective of why this isn’t like a horror film. I always thought my first film would be a horror film. My next film, I promise, it’s gonna be a real horror film. But with this one, it’s horror in the backdrop and horror in the setting. I’m actually not afraid of ghosts. I believe in the afterlife. And I believe that they’re around us and that we just don’t always have access to them. It’s not necessarily a scary thing for me. I wanted to create a world in which that was the idea and also the idea of what traditionally scares people. Maybe if you look at it in a different way and from a different perspective, maybe it’s not really that scary at all.

It’s funny how most of your cast members have appeared in ghost-related TV shows. Was that intentional?

[Laughs] No, not at all. Honestly, I knew Rahul Kohli; I was a fan of his back from iZombie. I watched the show, and I just found him so charming. But then when I saw him in The Haunting of Bly Manor, I was like, “Oh man, this guy can lay down a monologue and make me absolutely stop.” He was my first choice, and I still can’t believe that actually happened. Katie Parker [The Haunting of Hill House], she’s definitely been a ghost before, and I’m a huge fan of hers and a friend. And Rose McIver [Ghosts] is a really good friend. Maybe it’s just that I have ghostly friends. Maybe we all just like ghosts. We lean toward that a little bit more than maybe some other people and are more open to it.

How did you shoot your locations? Did you use multiple cities? Or did you fake it with a few cities because of the low budget?

Oh, no, we did a road trip. We shot New York in New York. We actually flew our small team of 17 people to Kansas City and started there, did the bulk of all the snow stuff there, then drove through Oklahoma and Texas. And then we got right on the border of Texas and New Mexico in Tucumcari; that’s where we shot a lot. We took over a motel there, then Albuquerque, then through Arizona and then landed in LA. And that’s where we picked up our other actors and finished a lot of the interiors.

Horror was largely an all-boys club until recent years. How did it feel helping to break the glass ceiling with your work over the years?

I’m continuing to do so. Laura Moss and I are creating a horror film that we’re going to be doing shortly. I’m part of a horror-makers coven with a bunch of amazing female horror directors that I love working with. The biggest problem is, everybody got used to a certain type of story. When you actually ask women what they think is so important, it leads to horror stories very naturally. It’s an important thing for me, but it’s more of an important thing that unheard voices have a chance to be heard. I’m not really that interested in making stories that I’ve seen or heard before. I’m interested in making stories that I feel like actually do something for the world and are different and unique. And horror lends itself to that because it wants that, and horror audiences want that. That’s the really exciting thing about horror.

So that’s one of the things that attracts you to horror?

Yeah. I love a good drama, but sometimes going at all the issues directly can be exhausting and living in this world is absolutely terrifying. Genre allows you to step out of it, experience what it’s like and take a small section of whatever you want to focus on and actually experience what it’s like and hopefully gain some understanding, some resolution or something from that. Sometimes going directly at it is just really hard and really exhausting. [Horror] allows you to actually have fun while you do it. Also, for me, I’m not a brave person. I scream through everything. I just love screaming. I squeal, I’m crawling out of my skin, and that’s a joyful experience because it’s a cathartic experience. It’s the same thing for rollercoaster rides, but those give me headaches.

Did you have to twist your dad’s arm at all to contribute to the music?

No, he is a big supporter, and he wrote a small piece at the beginning. I love big music, a big score, and that’s what I pushed for. But he kept saying, “No, you’re absolutely wrong.” And so, he wrote me a couple of pieces, and I was like, “He’s right.” Simplicity is actually much harder to do, simplicity with a very deep, intrinsic worry, fear, happiness, whimsy… that’s what I needed. He really guided me toward that. And then [composer] Ariel Marx took it and ran from there. Danny’s a little busy these days.

Your Tribeca premiere is just hours away. How does it feel? What kind of emotions are you going through?

This is the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. This isn’t like I just had an idea and I made it; this comes from deep inside of me. This is my truth. This is still very me. So, it’s really putting myself on display in a way that I never have. The adrenaline rushing through me is pretty intense, and I’m gonna be much happier when it’s over, but also very excited to finally bring this thing to life. It’s been a long time.

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Tony Timpone